Involuntary Pornography and the Logic of Blame

There’s only one news story from the last week that I could cover here, relating to the theft and dissemination of private photographs belonging to a number of female celebrities. I’ve written about involuntary pornography before (in a paper to be published soon by Palgrave!) – and this label, rather than ‘revenge porn’, is the more accurate, as it is not necessarily an act of revenge that spurs these instances of privacy violation. Rather than exist only in relation to individual instances of jealousy or anger, involuntary pornography instead demonstrates a more widespread attitude towards women and their use of photography. Having traced the discursive reactions to victims of involuntary pornography – on websites that host such materials and across popular media outlets – I noticed that there are three distinct strands to the conversation:

1. The woman is blamed for having made a poor choice to take intimate photographs in the first place, as to do so apparently indicates that she is easy, stupid or reckless. This establishes her character as being lacking, and focuses on what the woman did wrong. The dissemination of private images is seen as inevitable and therefore to be expected. Any woman who does not expect her images to be circulated in this way is therefore dismissed as ignorant of the way things are.

2. Despite the woman’s complicity in taking images being used against her, the value of such material lies in the fact that she did not intend for them to be publicly shared. This interesting conception of consent reveals that a woman must be both seen to be consenting (“she took the pictures, it’s her fault”) and yet also not consenting in order for the images to have their unique value, as evidence of both assent and reluctance. The viewer can therefore enjoy symbolic violence against a woman – getting sexual pleasure from her against her will – whilst also disdaining the woman for ‘having asked for it’. An unpleasant combination of desire and disgust.

3. In contrast, the choice of the consumer of images is expressed and validated on involuntary porn websites, relating to their assessment of the bodies depicted. Despite the women being displayed there against their will, there is still a strong culture here of condemning women’s attention-seeking behaviour as well as their appearances. Within this context, the full force of misogynistic hatred is abundant, in which the consumption of women’s bodies co-exists with a loathing women themselves. In particular, ire is directed at the agency of women: who are hated for having sexual desires and sex on their own terms, who take photographs of themselves, and who react in horror at being circulated in this manner. In this context, a woman who expresses her sexuality in any sense is conceptualised as public property and inviting predatory attention. It really is victim-blaming (and -hating and -devouring) of the most exceptional kind.

I feel very sorry for the women who have been the victims of involuntary pornography – celebrities and non-celebrities alike, as all in this context suffer an unpleasant kind of infamy, where along with the indignity and humiliation of being consumed in this way, they also are made to endure ferocious criticism regarding their personal lives. Attention rarely focuses to the same degree on those who steal and circulate such materials, as I argue that this kind of transgression against women is in fact culturally permitted. Tracing the discussion of involuntary pornography back to its logical roots, we see that victim-blaming here rests on a number of social norms relating to women’s regulated entry into the private sphere, the double standard and the expectation of women’s role in satisfying male, heterosexual desire. Involuntary pornography is therefore a symptom of the inequality between men and women – rather than solely direct our attentions at combating this breach of privacy, the solution lies in shifting this balance in power. For if women were not regarded in terms of their sexual value, or chastised for having sexual desires of their own, or automatically blamed for their own abuse, then involuntary pornography would not exist, as there would not be the cultural support that exists today to sustain and legitimize it.

I think the best criticism, and ridicule, of the victim-blaming over involuntary pornography came in the form of a tweet sent by writer Chuck Wendig: